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The reign of Sovereign

Gritty girl MC poised for grime time

London might be home to hip-hop's grime scene, where raw verses get flipped over hard-to-swallow beats, but Manhattan is home to fast-food's grime scene, where raw beef patties get flipped with greasy spatulas. Just ask Lady Sovereign — she puked at the Knitting Factory during her first performance at this year's CMJ Music Marathon.

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"I was ill — I must have ate some dirty McDonald's," she says. "I ate one cheeseburger and it just fucked me up. It put me off because that was all I used to eat before."

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I missed the barf-o-rama, but caught her next show at Webster Hall. I initially went that night to rack up bar tabs way over budget, cheer on already-made-it headliners and fill my backpack with stacks of wiggidy-wack demos. But when a 5-foot-1, 19-year-old femme fatale got cockney batshit in my grill, I not only fell in lust for the first time since Lauryn rubbed my brain in '94, but I also regained a smidgen of faith in America's most shamelessly commercial indie music fest.

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With a mail-order college crowd waiting for Blackalicious, Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif, Sovereign rolled out a 45-minute set without any hype man, live backup or recognizable lyrics. The reaction was mixed: Hipsters told their friends that they'd been downloading her for months, industry dicks lounged in the balcony rapping her praise, and the remaining crackers stumbled over beats that sound like shackles clicking while judges pound gavels to the tune of life sentences.

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Most of Sovereign's production hinges on reverberating basslines that get dragged through tracks and molested by electronic flatulence — all of which is standard grime procedure. Basically, if you're not interested in lyrics, this isn't for you. Grime beats aren't all unpolished, but even at their most accessible, they're usually pretty harsh. Mike Skinner — the one-man gang better known as the Streets — is by certain measures the pride of England's grime cipher, though his heroin rhythm isn't characteristic of his contemporaries. Despite sonic differences, Sovereign recently worked with Skinner on some tracks, including the "Fit But You Know It" remix, on which she plays the object of his erection, rhyming, "I was wearing baggy jeans and a tight top/Cleavage kinda showing, boy, I see something in your trousers growing."

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Stateside, the only people referencing boners and trousers in the same sentence are senior-citizen pedophiles, but in the U.K., it's kosher nomenclature. Although Sovereign's backdrops are for the most part, well, grimier than the Streets' beats, her rhymes (like Skinner's) show little American linguistic influence. Her new EP, Vertically Challenged, is done entirely in her own style.

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"I don't want to jump straight in there," she says about entering the U.S. mainstream. "I want to do it like I did it over here and just show people, ya know, this is who I am and let them see how I've evolved."

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Sovereign won't get into it, but right now there's a frenzy to work with her. On Vertically Challenged, which was released by the Chicago-based Chocolate Industries, Beastie Boy Ad-Rock lends a remix of "A Little Bit of Shhh." Otherwise, Sovereign stuck with her home team, but that's likely to change soon. Following a recent New York run that included Spin's 20th-anniversary bash, the little lady was courted by Jay-Z, Usher, Pharrell and a host of other king pimps.

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"I'm gonna do some American stuff and see how it goes," she says. "But some of American hip-hop is quite repetitive, and what I do — and what other people from the U.K. urban scene do — is different."

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Surely the U.K. has pubs full of other crooked-lipped pipsqueaks who could strangle microphones, so the question really is: Why Sovereign? There could be a few explanations. For one, even her voicemail message is bad ass; she orders you to hang up and try again later. And for another, she's got a foundation called Save the Hoodie, whose sole mission is to protect hooded sweatshirts from parliamentary ostracism.

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"Over here in the U.K., they've banned hoodies from some shopping malls and it's ridiculous," she says. "I just want to kick up a fuss because I'm pissed off with it."

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What separates Sovereign most, though, is how American pop audiences have never heard anything like her. Sure, Avril's hardcore, Kim can flow, Courtney Love hurls in public and Madonna has a British accent, but Lady Sovereign is the only one holding all four cards, and who isn't a fake-ass, contemptuous, psycho-cunt ho-bag, either.

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music@creativeloafing.com